Budget is another area of consideration. If the primary objective of your event is to raise money for a worthy cause such as a school PTO or other charity, then you probably do not want you to increase your operating budget too much with an expensive timing option. If you put on a series of races and attract a pretty serious crowd, then you will probably want to utilize the technology that will automate the job and give you the greatest accuracy and best data. It will cost a bit more, but this is necessary and expected at most of these types of races. Put on a professional race and utilize professional tools to do the job right.
So let's start with some low-tech options. These can work just fine when you have 100 or fewer participants or the flow of runners at the finish line will be fairly spread out. For this scenario you probably do not need chip timing depending on the crowd you hope to attract as we mentioned above. For this type of race every runner gets the same "gun time" for the start whether they line up at the front of the corral or cross the actual starting line 45 seconds after the start. Recording runners as they finish is where it will become more labor intensive and maybe get a bit chaotic. Completing this task can be as simple as having volunteers recording the clock time next to bib numbers on a spreadsheet.
You can employ some technology to this type of process at minimal expense that will make recording finishers much simpler and accurate as well. There are applications like Webscorer that allow you to upload participants’ registration information and assign bib numbers. When the gun goes off you just start the timer in the application. At the finish line, you would then utilize a tablet or smartphone running the same race timer to punch bib numbers on the screen as runners cross the line. These types of systems also give you options to output results across different categories as well.
Once you advance to the next level of technology we are generally talking about RFID-based chip technology. Systems such as these are a necessity if you have a large race and/or your runners expect exact results. These systems do cost more per runner to utilize, but they can automate the entire process and allow you to greatly reduce the number of volunteers or paid employees involved in this part of the event. A very basic system will cost at least $1,000 and depending on options and functionality can go north of $10,000 very quickly.
The easiest way to begin implementing this type of technology is to hire a race timing company. They should be able to scale the tools they utilize for your event relative to the number of participants and the type of data you need collected. Talk to several different companies. Be sure to get references and attend a few of the events they time that may be similar to yours to see how well they do the job. Pricing will vary greatly. Expect to pay around $2-$3 or more per runner, plus a setup fee. The more participants, the lower the cost can go.
No matter what option you choose to utilize, clearly communicate that to your runners on your race website and any other registration documents. Be sure to test all aspects of the system/method you choose multiple times BEFORE race day. Train and utilize volunteers who are reliable and will be cool under pressure in case something does go wrong. Wind, rain, and other environmental factors can easily wreck or disrupt sensitive electronic equipment. Technology is a great thing and can make your job much easier, but always remember to have a manual back-up plan in place in the event of a worst-case scenario.